The boys with the "Blue Ox" (bombsight) over enemy targets turn to each other with a grin and say "sur le schnozzola" which, in very bad French and a liberal dose of Durante, means "on the nose." They are smacking targets on the nose from incredible altitudes because of the accurate bombsights now in the possession of the United States Air Corps.
What is a bombsight?
No dictionary explains it despite the fact that bombsights have been made for more than a quarter of a century. It is a calculating machine of the most intricate type. It is a brain child of American ingenuity. The actual description or workings of the present-day sight is, of course, a military secret. But, however it works, we know a bombsight is an instrument of minute accuracy.
Just pushing of a button releases the bomb at the proper moment. It is, therefore, the bombardier who is in command of the warplane during actual bombing operations, not the pilot as the public is apt to believe. This applies, of course, to horizontal bombing, not to dive bombing.
A bombing mission may be 2,000 or 3,000 miles away from the base. The pilot guides the plane to the target on directions from the navigator; the gunners protect the ship against attack by enemy pursuit planes and are on the alert constantly, while the bombardier's work in most cases lasts less than a minute. The success of the entire bombing mission depends solely on these few, vital and intensive seconds during which the eyes and nerves of the bombardier are highly strained.
It stands to reason that the inventor must consider military strategy while designing and building a bombsight. He must KNOW military strategy because in actual aerial warfare two very important factors have to be taken into account.
The first is the time element; ie, the time elapsing from the start of the aligning operation up to the moment the bomb is released. That time must be as short as possible.
The second factor is the state of mind of the bombardier and pilot when being harassed by anti-aircraft fire and enemy planes. Hence, the easier and faster the bombsight is handled, the more successful the bombing mission will be. On the other hand, a complex bombsight though it may be a delicate instrument need not be the most effective. Thus, the creation of a simple, rational and yet accurate instrument is a tremendously difficult task.
Unlike firing a rifle or revolver, or even a field gun, aerial bombing is extremely complicated. True, the easiest bombing operations are over stationary targets. At the same time, they are hazardous because the anti-aircraft batteries are on solid ground. One of the most difficult bombing problems is to hit a target when flying cross wind, following an angle of approach with respect to the course of a moving battleship. In this case, the target, as such, is not actually seen, but its position is computed.
Today's bombsight, on which the airforces of the United Nations rely, is the outgrowth of the ideas and labor of early pioneers like Boykow, Michelin, Grandheding, Stas and Estoppey.
Like most inventors who prefer discussing their findings with co-workers, Georges Estoppey, who invented his first bombsight in 1914, has been reluctant to discuss his achievement with newspapermen and consequently has not been heralded with due praise.
His first instrument was a simple affair consisting of a fixed pin, two moving pins placed on a belt, two small pulleys and a plain stop watch. The dropping angle of a bomb was then determined by one single operation. In 1917, he improved his device, took it to the United States Patent Office, and obtained letters patent. Thus, the first American bombsight was born during the first World War. The first actual tests were made at Mineola, Long Island, early in 1918. A Caproni plane was used, piloted by a Captain Williams, US Air Service. Estoppey was the bombardier.
Bombs were dropped from an altitude of 8.000 feet. The results were so good that they attracted the attention of Professor Novis Russel of Princeton University, a ballistic specialist. The remarkable results so impressed him that he recommended Estoppey's sight to the War Department. Despite the previous disappointing negotiations with the War Department, Estoppey found himself in March, 1921, with United States Army Engineering Division at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio. Here he continued development of his bombsight under Government contract upon the suggestion of Captain H B Inglis. His sight then became the standard United States bombsight.
It was with this sight that the old battleships New Jersey and Virginia were blasted to bits off Cape Hatteras in September, 1923. Magazine and newspaper comment at the time related how two sights were used, one of Estoppey's and one by Alexander de Seversky. The Estoppey sight proved superior, got more hits and brought havoc to the old ships.
General John J Pershing's statement pertaining to the event was: "The aircraft bombing tests held off Cape Hatteras, when the battleships New Jersey and Virginia were sunk, marks another advance in the science of bombing. These tests against obsolete ships will not be considered as any conclusive evidence that similar bombs would sink modern types of battleships, particularly when manned, defended and able to take protective measures against the effects of damage by bombs. It does clearly show, however, that bombs can do great damage to battleships, and that our Air Service has trained personnel that can bomb accurately." Chief credit, it must be admitted, was due to the sight known as "Estoppey D1."
The late Brigadier General William Mitchell was enthusiastic over this sight and its performance. It was his ability to foresee and visualize the formidable advantage a bombing plane, equipped with such an astonishing instrument, would have over a foe on land or on sea. He became a prophet. He warned Congress and Army officials of future air armadas. He predicted such disasters as Pearl Harbor. But few understood him, and still less knew anything about bombsights.
But the pioneers continued their labors to improve their work, although some Army elements still doubted the merits of bombsights as well as their true value for military operations. They could understand dive bombing, but Flying Fortresses were then only hopeful dreams. Nearly twenty years have passed since General Mitchell's prophecy. But today, modern heavy battleships, notwithstanding the fact that they are well-manned and moving on the high seas, have been sunk or badly damaged.
Among early pioneers were Glenn L Martin, who similarly battled for his ideas of large bombing planes, and the late Brigadier General Harold H George, General Douglas MacArthur's Chief of Staff for Air, who was killed in an accident in Australia in May. General George then a Lieutenant was one of the first pilots with whom the father of the American bombsight carried on his many experiments.
In 1918, a year after Estoppey applied for a patent, two other pioneers H C Ford and A H Boettcher sought a patent on their design for a bombsight. Others who contributed to bombsight development were Captains Loring and Brown of the Ordnance Department.
Once the younger elements in the Air Forces (now high-ranking officers in the Army and Navy) became aware of the vital points of bombsights, progressive improvements of the instrument followed. In 1923, Estoppey designed an automatic sight with a telescope. This sight was calibrated for high altitudes. It was built by the Sperry Gyroscope Company, and startled the experts. The following year, the Gaertner Scientific Company of Chicago realize the opportunities and began manufacturing the Estoppey sights. It was not until 1927 that the Norden Company, under supervision of the Navy, undertook the construction of bombsights, thus benefiting from the work of the early pioneers.
When Estoppey left McCook Field in September, 1926, having been paid by the Army and Navy, he licensed the Government to manufacture sights, but retained his priority rights. Thereafter he signed several contracts with the US Govt., relative to new experimental bombsights which he built at the Gaertner Scientific Company, all of which were duly executed. Some of these sights were called "uncanny."
Even today, after twenty-five years of continued work on bombsights, he and others still labor. He predicts more fundamental innovations for the future. Today many bombardiers, though knowing the manner in which sights should be operated, cannot quite explain the mechanisms.
Since Pearl Harbor, the Navy (Norden), Estoppey and Sperry bombsights are no longer manufactured by the dozens. It is mass production for the Army and Navy and for the United Nations. The American sights are acknowledged to be the best in the world.
When final victory is won, a portion of the credit of our aerial supremacy must go not only to our bombardiers, but also to the men who invented and perfected the bombsights they used.
This article was originally published in the March, 1943, issue of Skyways magazine, vol 2, no 3, pp 40-43, 82.
The PDF of this article includes 8 photos associated with bombsights and a photo of a B-17F seen from directly below the left wingtip.
Photos credited to Acme, Wide World; B-17 photo is not credited.